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Impact of Hurricane Sandy on Election Is Uncertain

I’m not sure whether I render the greater disservice by contemplating the political effects of a natural disaster — or by ignoring the increasingly brisk winds whipping outside my apartment in Brooklyn. Still, I thought it was worth giving you my tentative thoughts on how Hurricane Sandy might affect the runup to next Tuesday’s election.

We may see a reduction in the number of polls issued over the coming days. The Investor’s Business Daily poll has already announced that it will suspend its national tracking poll until the storm passes, and other cancellations may follow. And certainly, any polls in the states that are most in harm’s way, including Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania, will need to be interpreted with extreme caution.

But what about the national polls that remain in the field? Could the storm affect their results?

Imagine that 15 million people are essentially off-limits to pollsters because of the hurricane, because they are without power, displaced from their homes or otherwise are well-adjusted human beings who are more interested in looking after their families than in answering a political survey. The Northeast is Democratic leaning, of course: imagine that these voters would prefer Barack Obama to Mitt Romney by a net of 20 percentage points, on average.

Fifteen million Americans represent about one-twentieth of the American population. If one-twentieth of Americans, who are 20 points Democratic-leaning, are unable to reply to surveys, Mr. Obama’s standing in the polls would be negatively impacted by a net of one percentage point as a result.

That calculation assumes, however, that pollsters are reporting their results verbatim. Instead, almost all polling firms weight their polls to cover non-response among different demographic groups. Some also weight their polls by geography, or might begin to do so because of Hurricane Sandy. This might mitigate the effects, although perhaps in unpredictable ways, since the weighting algorithms that different pollsters use are as much an art form as a science.

Some analysts have also expressed concern that the storm could depress turnout along the Eastern Seaboard on Election Day itself. Since the affected states are Democratic-leaning, and since many of them are so Democratic-leaning that they are likely to vote for Mr. Obama even in a low turnout, it is thought that this might reduce Mr. Obama’s national popular vote without hurting his standing in the Electoral College much, potentially increasing the risk of a split outcome.

This is a plausible argument, but let me offer a pair of cautions against it.

First, the Northeast is a wealthy party of the country, and wealthier regions have better infrastructure than impoverished ones, allowing them to recuperate more quickly after a disaster. Were the hurricane expected to hit at the same time next week, it would almost certainly be profoundly disruptive to the election. But the effects might be more modest a week from now.

Second, although the storm surge represents the most immediate threat from the hurricane, inland areas are under considerable risk as well. Hurricane Sandy could potentially flood riverbanks and other low-lying areas, both because of the storm surge carrying forth into them and then because of the potential for large amounts of rainfall. Moreover, these inland regions may be less well prepared to deal with the storm’s effects, especially given the news media’s tendency to focus its alerts on the impact to major, coastal cities and then to ignore the impact of a storm once it passes through them. (Hurricane Irene in 2011 produced more deaths in landlocked Vermont than in New York City.) Thus, Sandy’s after-effects could be felt in red-leaning areas like central Pennsylvania and West Virginia, along with others that are more Democratic-leaning.

Along the same lines, it is probably unwise to anticipate what effects the storm might have within particular states, such as whether it might affect the Democratic parts of Pennsylvania more than the Republican ones. Hurricane Sandy is just too large a storm, and has such unpredictable destructive potential, to make reliable guesses about this.

The storm, of course, will also affect the plans of the campaigns and the tenor of news coverage about them.

Academic studies on the effects of natural disasters on elections have produced somewhat ambiguous results, but don’t contradict the intuitive notion that a disaster response that seems well managed could help an incumbent, while a botched response (especially if the storm damage is severe) could harm him. However, most of these studies seek to evaluate the political effects of disasters on elections held months or even years later, so their utility for understanding the immediate political consequences of a disaster may be limited.

More important: if you are in an affected region, take the weather forecast very seriously and make sure that you’re safe and secure. Public officials, from mayors to presidents, unfortunately may have their incentives corrupted by political considerations, and will not always provide the best guidance to the public as a result. Err strongly on the side of caution; FiveThirtyEight will be here when your power is back on.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.